The veneration of the dead is common across humanity, in some societies even to the extent of praying to dead ancestors. Most countries do not go to that extreme but it is common for nation states to venerate leaders from the past. In the USA politicians even now talk about what the ‘founding fathers’ of their nation meant when they wrote the constitution over 200 years ago.
Are we correct to place such trust in guidance from the past? What special skills or knowledge could anyone from even 100 years ago have that would be relevant today?
I pose this question because we in Ireland are still trapped by the attitudes and decisions of people from our past. On a banner advertising the Sunday 4th June ‘South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration’ at Mullaghbawn (to be addressed by SF MP John Finucane) there is a quote from the murdered republican Máire Drumm which reads ‘We must take no steps backward, our steps must be onward, for if we don’t, the Martyrs that died for you, for me, for this country will haunt us forever’.
We all want to move forward, but the threat of being haunted by the martyrs of the past is holding some of us back. I suggest that the ‘heroes’ from the start of the last century such as Pearse and Connolly or Carson and Craig may have been clever people but they lacked our knowledge of how the 20th Century would unfold and that consequently they offer little useful guidance to the political decisions we should take today. Just as you and I cannot see into the future and have no right to dictate the political decisions our children will make in 20 years, those who died in tragic circumstances decades ago should not dictate our decisions today.
The young people of Ireland are moving on and want to be free to choose their own future and not be pressured by the ghosts of an ugly conflict from before they were born; our children and grandchildren should be free to ignore my unionism or your nationalism.
Does this mean that we should forget those who died in tragic circumstances during the Troubles?
Of course not, all families have a right to remember their dead, but remembering is not the same as celebrating people as heroes because they chose to use violence to solve a political problem and setting them up as examples for tomorrow’s young. By doing so we increase the risk of further tragedy in the future. Those who decided to kill for their country in the 1970s and 1980s had mixed motivations but there is no doubt that they were inspired by the public celebration of the UVF and IRA heroes from start of the 20th Century. (I was personally disgusted to see our unionist politicians celebrate in 2014 the UVF gun running at Larne.)
I have said before and will say again, it took courage to starve yourself to death, it must have taken some courage to set out to shoot a political enemy (most violence requires courage), but that does not make someone a heroic example for today’s children.
Michelle O’Neill got it wrong when she said ‘I think at the time there was no alternative’ to violence. She could just as easily have said ‘At that time many young people felt there was no alternative’ to violence, and most unionists would have accepted this as fair comment.
As a unionist attending QUB in 1978-1981 I was shocked to meet young republicans who believed the IRA violence was necessary, but after talking to them I found I could easily understand how they came to have those beliefs. Unionists and Nationalists have been poking each other in the eye since long before any of us were born, we need to stop.
Nationalists will rightly point out the number of bands and Orange Order banners that commemorate killers, every summer our streetlights bear flags celebrating terrorist groups like the UVF and UDA and sometimes even posters celebrating individual murderers like Wesley Somerville. We in the unionist community must deal with that, just as Sinn Féin must come to terms with the fact the violence of the Troubles was a tragic mistake.
If we are to ever put the past behind us and allow our children and grandchildren a future free from the ghosts of the past, we need to accept that the violence of the Troubles might look heroic, it might seem understandable, but if we take into account the many victims, we must acknowledge that it was a tragic mistake.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.